Ed. — A version of this story originally appeared in print in August.
COURTHOUSE – Harvest Farms, a mixed-use development proposed for two properties in the heart of Pungo, faces opposition regarding the amount of housing and commercial development, but one of its developers said the project is moving forward while its plans are being redrawn to address those community concerns.
Bill DeSteph said Harvest Farms, which formerly was called Pungo Ridge and is being developed by Pungo Properties, LLC, will go to the Virginia Beach Planning Commission, though it remains uncertain when.
“We’ve listened to the community,” said DeSteph, a state senator and former member of the Virginia Beach City Council. “We’re addressing the concerns.”
In August, DeSteph said new designs were being made to address concerns about the density of the project, which initially proposed 164 homes on about 122 acres, and about 16 acres of commercial development. Details of the changes, however, were not available.
The properties involved are Back Bay Farms and the old Pungo airfield, on either side of Princess Anne Road near the intersection with Indian River Road. The area is considered the gateway to Virginia Beach’s rural south. The development is proposed for the southernmost edge of a transition area meant to allow for development between the city’s suburban north and rural communities further south.
The project could significantly change the face of the Pungo village area. Developers have said it will compliment the character of Pungo and will be designed around the concept of an “agrihood,” meaning it incorporates farming within the neighborhood.
DeSteph said revisions would address both the amount of commercial and housing within the project. The development team was determining whether the project would remain financially viable with such changes, he said.
“We’ve reduced the density on both, and they are finishing that up now,” he said.
It was uncertain whether the development would be revised to meet a threshold of one unit per acre of developable land within the city transition area. The project, as initially proposed, was at about 1.5 units per acre.
Potential changes follow meetings with members of the public, as well as a request by an advisory committee that reviews project within the transition area for the developers to address a series of inconsistencies with guidelines in the city’s comprehensive plan and for the transition area.
In addition to community concerns discussed in recent editions of The Independent News, two groups that have reviewed initial plans for the project raised issues this year about the density of the project, among other matters. The transition area is between suburban development above the Green Line and rural communities south of Indian River Road, a boundary for extending the city services that could fuel additional development.
A portion of the proposed subdivision, including 111 of the initially-planned homes, are within an overlay area that is part of the Navy’s air installation compatible use zone program, sometimes called by the acronym AICUZ. Earlier this year, the Joint City-Navy Process Group evaluated the Harvest Farms proposal, finding it too dense for transition area guidelines and compared to neighboring communities of Sherwood Lakes and Ashville Park.
That assessment, which included input from representatives of the air station, would become part of an eventual city staff recommendation about the project. A spokesperson at Oceana referred questions about that process to the city planning department.
Carolyn Smith, the city’s planning administrator, noted that the evaluation does not represent an official position of the Navy, though Oceana is part of the process.
“It’s only a recommendation, but that group has recommended denial based upon the density of the application,” City Planning Director Barry Frankenfield said in an interview.
Via email, he added that the working group is a result of the Navy’s and city’s 2008 memorandum of understanding to work together to ensure development meets standards within AICUZ areas.
“That one is a big strike because we just haven’t gone against the Navy on anything, to my knowledge,” City Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents the Princess Anne District, said during an interview.
“The Navy’s assessment is an extremely important issue,” she said. “That’s been the first questions we ask with anything that has AICUZ implications.”
Henley, among the officials who have expressed concerns about Harvest Farms, said she still has questions but wants to let the approval process progress and get answers.
Another advisory group was preparing a letter of opposition to the project until it learned the project was being redesigned.
“We’re going to send a strong letter recommending that this application be denied by the Planning Commission and by the City Council,” said Linwood Branch, chairperson of the Transition Area/Interfacility Traffic Area Citizens Advisory Committee, during a meeting held before DeSteph said the project would change.
The committee reviews projects within the transition area and the ITA, an area between Oceana and Naval Air Landing Facility Fentress. Following a presentation about Harvest Farms in July, the committee asked for the developers to return in August with a revised plan that met transition area guidelines.
The developers did not return then, however. Branch addressed the request by the committee during a discussion on Thursday, Aug. 2. He said it would address concerns spelled out for the developer in a July letter that said the project was not compatible with the city comprehensive plan and transition area guidelines. Concerns included the density, amount of commercial area and lot sizes.
“It comes down to two things,” Branch noted during the August meeting. “Either the guidelines get changed, and we change the entire vision and nature of the transition area, or we put in this letter – and we’ve said it before, but even stronger now – that the city really needs to look at either putting money into the open space program or the ARP program to acquire this property so we can leave it in its natural state.”
Some people attending the meeting applauded the remark. The agricultural reserve program, or ARP, is a program meant to buy development rights to keep agricultural land viable as farmland.
Branch said the city has learned a lesson about development in the transition area, where flooding has been an issue. The letter stating the committee recommendation was still being prepared this past week.
“I think we’re really at a seminal point in terms of the rest of the transition area,” Branch said during the meeting. “If this development goes through, then the game’s over.”
Services would reach Indian River Road, he noted.
And potentially cross it thereafter.
“There are some people in this city who would like to see that happen,” Branch said, “but I think there’s a lot more people that don’t want to see it happen.”
Harvest Farms also faces public criticism expressed during meetings, on social media and in correspondence with city leaders.
“To me, the overwhelming opposition to that project in particular and any development there in general says to me this is not the time to consider anything like that,” said Dr. Karen Beardslee Kwasny, who represents the Princess Anne District on the Planning Commission, during an interview.
One selling point for the Harvest Farms plan has been an effort to take stormwater that drains from the airfield property into Ashville Park and reroute it, thus easing flooding concerns in a neighborhood that is now the subject of taxpayer-funded improvements.
The development team has said it did consider the transition area guidelines when building its plan. The logic is that stormwater benefits for Ashville Park might allow some greater density for Harvest Farms.
This summer, the city and HomeFed Corporation, a California-based company now developing Ashville Park, reached an agreement that clears the way for fixes to a system in that neighborhood that was designed under a previous developer.
The city will be responsible for about $11.1 million to fund an initial phase of drainage improvements, but it will gain land that would have been developed for another village in the community. That land would now go toward stormwater retention.
The City Council voted on Tuesday, Aug. 7, to allow changes that will let HomeFed develop a next section of the neighborhood – though Ashville Park ultimately would have fewer homes than envisioned due to the arrangement with the city. City Councilmember Rosemary Wilson, who holds an at large seat, said the end result was a good arrangement.
“We really made out well,” she said.
DeSteph said Harvest Farms would mean addition relief for neghboring Ashville Park.
“The number one thing is it takes 10 percent of the water out of Ashville Park, so, in essence, it will have significant impact on reducing the flooding in Ashville Park,” he said.
In a statement meant to address frequent questions about how Harvest Farms could help Ashville Park, Deputy Manager Tom Leahy wrote that Harvest Farms could improve conditions at Ashville Park, though it would not solve issues there itself. Still, the relief would be “not insignificant.”
“By ‘not insignificant,’ I mean that while the benefits of removing the inflow from Ashville are small and would not stand on their own as a solution to Ashville’s problems, when added to the [already planned improvements improvements] they are more meaningful,” Leahy wrote.
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